Opinion

Opinion | Andrea Gabor

An education reform law that worked

Boston, MA - 5/10/18 - Students pose on the Grand Staircase. The group's intention was to listen to the Senate and observe its vote. Brockton High School students, and Superintendent of Schools Kathleen A. Smith (cq), and other adults, rally at the State House for school funding. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: 11revere Reporter: XXX
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Brockton High School students rallied at the State House for school funding on May 10.

Twenty-five years after Massachusetts passed a historic education reform law that helped make it the gold-standard for American schooling, the Bay State reforms are coming under scrutiny again — and for good reason.

What happened in Massachusetts is actually a tale of two reforms. The first, signed into law on June 18, 1993, was a bipartisan achievement hammered out by a Republican governor and Democratic state legislators, and informed by a vigorous local debate among educators, parents, and business people who agreed on a “grand bargain”: substantially more state spending for schools in exchange for higher standards and increased accountability.

The law worked initially as intended. It infused over $1 billion in extra education funding — mostly to poor communities. Massachusetts achieved top scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card. By 2000, the gap between NAEP scores of black and white students had actually narrowed.

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But subsequent tax cuts and the Great Recession gradually eroded school spending, which failed to keep pace “adequately or equitably,” according to a new report from the Massachusetts State Senate.

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“Massachusetts is again among the states with the most unequal funding for local schools,” concludes the Senate study, with inflation-adjusted spending “less now than in 2002.”

A new 2010 education law only made matters worse. While providing a one-time $250 million cash infusion from the Federal government, the law failed to make up for school-funding inequities, yet imposed dire consequences on schools, districts, and teachers who failed to make test-score gains. It also gutted the much-lauded curriculum standards.

Massachusetts’s NAEP scores are still number one nationally, but they’ve stagnated in recent years and the achievement gap has widened.

It is time to revisit how the original 1993 legislation worked — and why it remains a model worth building on. The law was a response to a decade of property tax cuts that hit poor communities hardest. A successful class-action lawsuit, led by Brockton students, and decided just days before the Education Reform Act was passed, sought to remedy that inequality, arguing that Massachusetts was not meeting its constitutional obligation to “cherish” education for all students — language written into the state constitution by John Adams.

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Enter Jack Rennie, a local businessman, who cofounded the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which produced the blueprint for the 1993 law.

Rennie’s approach was as important as MBAE’s policy recommendations, and put him at odds with other business reformers. He insisted on bringing everyone, including the teachers union, to the table .

A cornerstone of the MBAE recommendations and the new law was the foundation budget, which was initially set at $6,000 per pupil for poor districts, double the previous spending level in those districts. The law also created a new 10th-grade graduation requirement — the MCAS test. And it capped charter schools at 25 statewide.

Between 1993 and 2000, state aid to local education doubled. An examination of six spending-inequality measures by MassINC, a nonpartisan research organization, found that “by every measure, spending was equalized throughout the 1990s.”

Nowhere were the results more pronounced than in Brockton, which had spearheaded the funding-equity law suit. Brockton High, the state’s largest and poorest high school, had suffered mightily during the 1980s as a result of the collapse of the city’s industrial base and because of meager state spending on schools. Class sizes ballooned even as non-English-speaking immigrants poured in. Once thriving, Brockton High became known as the worst high school in Massachusetts.

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The reforms — both the extra funding and the prospect that a majority of students might fail to graduate if they could not pass the MCAS — sparked a teacher-led literacy strategy that suffused every subject. Borrowing a page from the collaborative model of the 1993 reforms, Brockton High even sought advice from local business leaders. For over a decade, Brockton outperformed most Bay State schools; as recently as 2016, Brockton was a Level 1 school, surpassing the state average on attendance (94 percent), four-year graduation rates (88 percent), and college matriculation (77 percent).

Yet, in recent years, Brockton has struggled to navigate new state and federal mandates, including new teacher evaluations and a common core-aligned MCAS. In 2016, Governor Charlie Baker and his top education officials imposed a charter school on the community against overwhelming local opposition. During the last school year, Brockton ran a $16 million deficit; the town is now exploring a new funding lawsuit.

It is time to restore equitable funding for schools — the aim of an education-funding bill that just passed the state Senate — and to fully realize the vision of the 1993 reforms. This encompassed not just a rich curriculum, but also a robust role for local school-based decision-making and a wide array of accountability measures, and, as the MBAE pointed out in 1993, “not simply results of standardized tests.” All these measures are needed to return schools like Brockton High to their former levels of fiscal and educational sustainability.

Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY and the author of “After the Education Wars.”